That’s the title of a poem I wrote back in the 1970s when I was living in Los Angeles and aspired to be part of the post-Beat Generation. In those days I had read all the good guys, Proudhon, Bakunin, Max Stirner, Orwell’s books about being down and out as well as his sojourn in Andalusia. I had a rudimentary grasp of Marxism. Tito and the Italian Communists were still doing the world a favor and being part of the non-aligned movement, not siding with the Soviets or the Americans. Just a few years earlier I had traveled from New Delhi to London and back to New Delhi, overland, through Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey without a hateful word or glance being raised against me. Of course I was traveling on an Italian passport, so that was an advantage. The Americans crossing the borders did get some hard stares and long waits and extra backpack checks before they were eventually waved through to the other side. No wars were being fought. I traveled alone by bus and train, mixed in with the locals and nobody ever treated me badly. In fact, I was able to sleep in a bus station office one night in Tehran because the bus I needed to take would leave at 6 in the morning and the bus station manager figured it would be easier for me if I slept there. Kindness.
When I got to America in 1972, it was Nixon’s country, even though he would be forced out soon. After a year or so in Baltimore, I made it back to Los Angeles, where I had spent my youth, growing up in Beverly Hills (not the rich part) and where I eventually enrolled in LACC, which then got me to Cal State Northridge (CSUN) where I studied English Literature. My friends were all in the entertainment industry, TV, films, advertising, and the fact that I was leaning left politically didn’t faze anybody at all. Leftism was OK. Jane Fonda was a leftie and still working in movies, so what was the harm? Of course I took film classes, worked on student films as a boom-man and grip, wrote scripts, like everyone, but was so beguiled by the Beat Generation, which had been introduced to me in Durban while I was at university there, that I wanted to be Gregory Corso’s poetic heir, be Ferlinghetti’s godson, be published by City Lights and careen across the United States in a wild Kerouac/Kesey journey that would bring my work to the eyes of every American.
Things went otherwise.
My script about an anarchist who steals a battlefield nuke from NATO and tries to blow up Paris was “not the kind of material suitable for production.” My script about a coup in Africa (entitled Coup!) disappeared from the table when my agent went to a script meeting. He said: “Sorry,” with a twisted smile. A few years later I saw the title as a novel, set in Africa, with a plot more-or-less like mine, but cleverly elaborated and changed so that in case my script ever turned up, no copyright infringement could be claimed. Hollywood at its finest. America Sucks.
Meanwhile, I was reading my poetry at various small bookstores in Hollywood, with and without jazz guitar accompaniment. Usually, America Sucks would close out my reading. It drew various types of reaction. Smiles, frowns, some embarrassing side glances, once in a while an angry stare, and once, from a gay poet who followed me to the podium, a humorous comment: “I like to suck!” The laughter he got was a smooth transition to his homoerotic verses. He was a good poet, with great images. He ended up being a professor of literature at a Midwestern university.
I ended up being a lyricist for pop, rock, metal and country music in Germany.
A couple of my friends went on to fame and fortune in the entertainment industry, and we are still friends today. The difference between us is that they were able to understand the system they were dealing with from a practical side. Their skills were needed in the industry, and they made sure their skills were being paid for very well. I was naive. I believed that it was only technical skills one had to develop. Write well and you will be rewarded. But the skill my friends had developed, beyond the technical skill, was the ability to understand how the system actually functioned and how the people in the system did business. One friend of mine, who writes music for films, will not write one single note of music until he sees the money on the table. The other, who works in animation, learned how to make himself indispensable to the company’s success, thus ensuring that he is not shit out of the system at age 50 because his salary is too big.
My naive idealism, my dreams of belonging to a new generation that could never be what the old generation was, drove me to travel abroad, to a place where I felt more at home: Europe. After all, I’m a European, not an American, even though I was deeply affected by the American culture (or as one of my friends terms it: the American subculture). I was born in Italy. I spent my early life in Zagreb. When I was in second grade at Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, Dick McCann screamed at me: “You lost the war!” I didn’t know what war he was talking about. It didn’t matter, really. It was made quite clear to me that no matter how well I played baseball (I was an All-Star in Little League and PONY League), no matter how well I was able to surf Malibu, to blend in, I was not an American, and I never would be an American. Then my mother got transferred to Madagascar and my Beverly Hills High School career was broken up just before my junior year, just before some of my schoolmates would not be able to beat the draft despite their rich parents, and some would end up dead in Vietnam.
Boy was I glad then that I was not an American. America Sucks.
From Madagascar, we went to Nairobi, Kenya and I ended up getting a better education at St. Mary’s than I had at Beverly High. I read Shakespeare and the Bronte sisters, was a prime debater, won an elocution contest, and was encouraged to write an article for the yearbook. And it’s where I first started to learn to play the guitar. This was followed by two years of unrewarding university studies in Durban, where my leftist leanings and my love of the Beat Generation, as well as my fascination with drugs, were all nurtured. Sure, there was Apartheid, but we broke the barriers by going to the Blue Note after midnight where an all-black jazz band played to an all-white audience of university students mixed in with jazz-lovers. Boy, it was great to feel like a rebel with a cause, until of course my drug habit kicked me into psychosis and a stint in the Pietermaritzburg asylum, where I was eventually able to recover enough so that my mother could pick me up and take me back to Nairobi.
We traveled by ship, stopped in Mozambique, the Comoros islands and in Zanzibar before we landed in Mombasa. I was on a heavy Stelazine Thorazine regimen, but was able to eat a bowl full of shrimp peri-peri in Lourenço Marques with pleasure as my mother and I watched the sunset from the restaurant terrace before riding back to the ship with our driver, George Washington. We sent a hundred postcards from Zanzibar on the day before the revolt which overthrew the Sultan. Our friends got postcards with the Sultan stamps and the new revolutionary government date-stamp. We sent them very valuable philatelic material. I wonder how many of them realized that?
When I finally escaped from America gain in 1980, it was on a romantic journey to Lisbon, where I would write my first book while ghosting a book (for money) for a Syrian businessman. Besides that, I also taught English to a Freudian psychiatrist. It was really fun, because when people asked me what I did, I always replied: “I go to a psychiatrist, and he pays me!” It was my secret pleasure. And it always caused consternation in people. These were mostly people from the music business in Lisbon who wanted to go international, so they would hire me to write lyrics for them in English, for cash of course. No credit. I didn’t mind. I needed to pay rent and eat. Until one day I played some of my songs for one of the publishers and he took me to play live in front of a singer and her manager. They took one of my rock songs, recorded it with Portuguese lyrics, released it as a single, and it shot to number one. With my name in the credits!
Don’t worry. It didn’t make me rich. After all, Portugal is a very small market and 50,000 sold copies of the single made me about $500. Which was enough to buy me a ticket to Germany, the third largest music market in the world. In Hamburg I found that I was not only needed, but that my skill could be well rewarded. And, in contrast to the America Sucks music scene, I got both name credit and money, even when it wasn’t in advance. And then I got lucky. Another number one hit. But this time in France and Belgium with a song for which I wrote the lyrics. But don’t worry, it didn’t make me famous (or rich actually), but it did help me survive for a few years while I didn’t give up my day job as an English teacher and translator.
Believe it or not, you don’t make millions in the music industry with every hit record, especially if your total share is only about 12% of the author’s part. What? Yeah. The original lyricist gets 50% (actually 25% because the publisher takes half), the sub-lyricist (me writing in a different language from the original) gets half of that 12.25%. It’s OK pay for a few hours of work, but it won’t put you in a mansion and a Rolls. Nor will writing for heavy metal bands and pop groups that want to break into the British and American markets. One of my good friends in the German music industry told me lately that even Nena, with her American hit 99 Red Balloons got shafted by the America Sucks music industry. Let’s put it this way, she got less for her hit song over there than I got paid to write lyrics anonymously for a popular German metal band signed with SONY. Over here, she made tons of money with that song in German and the album and other hits and other albums, which eventually got her a seat as a judge in one of the casting shows that are now so popular. But the America Sucks music industry took what it wanted and said what it always says when your lawyers tell them you want your money: “Sue me!”
Yes, I’m still over on the left field side of the diamond, near the track in front of the fence, taking home runs away from people who try and tell me that capitalism is god’s answer to how humans should comport themselves. The latest homer I took away was the argument somebody made about how generous and kind billionaires can be. Besides the generosity of Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates in regard to a vaccine, this person quoted the 4 billion dollars donated by MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of the world’s richest man, Amazon owner Jeff Bezos. Now I am certainly not against wealthy people giving away their money. In fact, I wish they would give away more of it, or even just pay their fair share of taxes. Not paying tax is often a prime source of their wealth. The fact that MacKenzie Scott has decided to give lots of money away is a good thing. “In April 2019, Scott posted her first ever tweet to lay out terms of their divorce affecting shareholders. She gave him [Bezos] 75% of their Amazon stock and voting control of her shares, which left her a 4% stake in Amazon worth $38 billion or so at the time (as of early October , her net worth is more than $60 billion). Overnight, she became one of the richest women in the world.”
Her decision to give away a bit over $4 billion came as a surprise that made other billionaires snarl at the betrayal they felt from a senior member of “the club” that George Carlin mentions and reminds us that “you ain’t in it.” What she has decided to do is to give her donations to charitable organizations that can then funnel the money to those who need it. That’s one way of doing it. Hopefully it will be effective. But it begs the question: Why does this need to be done? The answer is that it needs to be done because America Sucks, and sucks big-time. With a functioning social net and Medicare-for-all, as well as a progressive tax system which reduces the billions in profits to (at the very most) a million in profits for shareholders, the system would be a shining example to what can be done in the world if people are fair to each other, distribute wealth to those places where it is needed instead of funneling money into disastrous wars and the destruction of our habitat.
Of course I am still the naive idealist who went back to Europe where the social net still catches a lot of people, despite the holes that have been poked in it by the capitalist true-believers over the past 20 years. Yet I am happy to be in a place where the wrathful sociopathic energy of the capitalist is confronted with legal barriers that cannot always be overcome with huge amounts of money.
The sad thing is, that though I wrote that poem almost 50 years ago, it’s still true: America Sucks.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.